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Sender: Jeff Weissglass
Subject: Re: Where Does Polarization Come From?
Date: Fri, May 16, 2014
Msg: 100988

Thanks to Charles Wisoff for posting the Stennis Center Report. Seems to offer lots of good thinking on the issue of polarization.

I also recommend Ron Brownstein's 2007 book The Second Civil War. I thought he made a persuasive case that our current polarization is a return to the norm in American politics after an unusual period of comity that lasted from about 1940 to 1964. As I recall, he says that that the modern party system stabilized in 1896. From then until about 1930 we were quite divided ideologically but the Republican party, driven in large part by business interests, maintained strong majorities and was able to govern. With the depression and the New Deal, the situation reversed and the Democrats had very large majorities with which to rule. During both eras, party line voting in Congress was deeply polarized, but it did not lead to the kind of gridlock we have now because of the large majorities. With the onset of World War II and the economic growth that followed, party line voting eased dramatically. This began to shift again in the late 50s and accelerated following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. From there, the data shows a steady shift back to and beyond the levels of party line voting we had seen from 1896-1940 (attributable in part to the slow but steady flow of Southern Democrats out of the party).

Brownstein argues that the difference between our current era of polarization and the two earlier eras is that we are not only deeply divided ideologically now, as we were then, but we are also now more evenly divided. The Stennis report identifies the impact of being evenly divided as one of the issues leading to polarized voting, but it may understate the degree to which this is a unique situation in our history. The report does add an important element to the the Brownstein analysis, which is that the battle between deeply and evenly divided sides has led to a set of tactics and rule changes that make it difficult for one party to control decision making, even with what once might have seemed significant majorities. (The most obvious example being the increased use of the filibuster to effectively shift the very notion of a controlling majority to mean 60% in the Senate.)

To me, the Brownstein analysis suggests that our historical ability to avoid ideologically polarized gridlock depended on either a clear majority for one side or a sense of a common enemy or purpose. What I see the work of many on this list trying to do is to create a 3rd option through innovative approaches that enable us to co-exist and even thrive while accepting and somehow working with our different world views. Though we may wish there were a golden era to which we could return, what we really seem to be doing is trying to invent a new solution to polarized gridlock. That is an awesome task, and one that I think will take constant experimentation, failure, and perseverance over a period of many years. Unless of course one of the first two ways - the rise of a clear majority or of a common enemy or purpose - emerges first.

Thanks for the conversation.


Jeff Weissglass Political Bridge Building and Education Advocate PO Box 647 Oak Park, IL 60303 708-660-9885

On May 16, 2014, at 1:51 PM, Charles Wisoff wrote:

A while ago I read an interesting report published by the Stennis Center (named after former Congressman John C. Stennis) about the causes of polarization. The Stennis Center convenes congressional staff fellows from across party lines. The fellows from the 112 Congress convened in roundtables and retreats spanning two years and consulted with a number of experts to produce this report. Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, it's definitely worth reading at least to get a picture of what hill staffers think about the issue:


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